Al Qaeda 2012: Will it be resurgence or defeat?

Al Qaeda is not dead yet, but it’s not nearly as strong as it was one year ago.  Al Qaeda encountered its worst year ever in 2011 losing countless key leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  Meanwhile a host of Arab revolutions unseated  dictators long labelled by al Qaeda as apostate tools of the West.  Al Qaeda played no part in these 2011 uprisings and gained a host of Islamist group competitors in the aftermath of these revolutions.

Thus, 2012 will constitute al Qaeda’s sink or swim year.  Al Qaeda must transform and reinvigorate its base of support or will likely be crowded out by the advances of alternative Islamist groups taking control of Arab governments.

Despite recent setbacks, al Qaeda does have some potential avenues for re-emerging in 2012.  Overall, if al Qaeda does regain its footing, I’m guessing it will be in a largely new form, in parallel rather than in coordination with its traditional senior leadership.  I’ll focus on this more in two upcoming posts.  But for now, here are the al Qaeda hotspots (outside of Pakistan) still warranting concern.  I placed them in order based on most concerning to least concerning based on my weighted ranking of each group’s operational freedom, estimated resource support, and relative talent level.  (This is a quick swag similar to this method from a few months back)

  1. al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – The loss of Awlaki and other key propagandists reduced the Yemen AQ affiliate’s global outreach and international operations.  However, AQAP’s insurgency against the Yemeni state continues and they’ve been able to hold territory for sometime.  Given a relatively stable safe haven, AQAP retains a base of talent which will likely allow them to project attacks outside the region in the future.
  2. al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – AQIM appears to have picked up its attacks regionally in the past year and likely gained some weapons and recruits in the fallout of the Libyan revolution.  As seen by their reliance on kidnapping operations, AQIM remains starved for resources.  While the Sahel provides them a safe haven, it’s also a long way from targets and difficult to survive in.  New partnerships between Sahel countries like Mali and Algeria suggest a renewed CT focus on this node which may inhibit their growth in 2012.
  3. Re-emerging al Qaeda in Syria/Anbar, Iraq –  While its still too early to tell, Syria may be the most concerning opportunity for AQ’s re-emergence – a perfect opportunity really.  Syria is a bloody fight against a declared apostate regime combined with a renewed base of support in Western Iraq where Sunnis may be contemplating a civil war with a Shia majority central government.  AQ has lessons learned from jihadi participation in the Syrian of 1976-1982 (See “The Vanguard and Muslim Brotherhood Operations in Syria” section from Harmony and Disharmony by Joe Felter, Jacob Shapiro, Brian Fishman and Jeff Bramlett) and a network of support left from shipping foreign fighters into Iraq.  Likewise, donations in men and money should be easy to come by for fighting in Syria and/or Iraq.
  4. al Shabaab in Somalia – I’m not sure what it is, but Shabaab always seems to get derailed by local politics that trump bigger al Qaeda goals.  Shabaab will continue to pose a threat in the Horn of Africa but the interventions of Kenya, Ethiopia and the U.S. indirectly, combined with constant resource constraints, appear likely to check Shabaab’s growth.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Kenyan incursion into Somalia plays out in 2012.
  5. al Qaeda in Libya – With the dust settling after the fall of the Qadhafi regime, veteran Libyan AQ fighters may be slipping into eastern Libya and joining old remnants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the militias of Darnah.  I’m still not convinced this will emerge as a serious AQ threat as resources will likely be limited to the group. Likewise, there are competing tribes that may be willing to take on AQ affiliated militants if coaxed a bit.  Only time will tell, but there appears some reason to believe AQ will grow here.
  6. al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula – A new potential group emerging in the vacuum of the Egyptian revolution is al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.  This is a smart bet for AQ as the Palestinian-Israeli issue may be the remaining valid AQ ideological tenet for fighting the West.  Many of AQ’s remaining leaders come from Egypt and courting anti-Israel popular support might be a way for AQ to infiltrate an Egyptian revolution they missed.  However, Egypt’s newly elected Islamists may frown on a violent group drawing attention from the West.

Libyan Rebels: Seeking military leaders willing to travel

Where I grew up, before the age of texting, high school teenagers would jump in their cars on Friday/Saturday nights and caravan to cornfields, abandoned parking lots and country highways establishing informal gatherings quickly scuttled at the first sign of a police car or prying parents.  Teenagers would disperse in a chaotic fashion driving away haphazardly to the next link up point for another 30 minutes of socializing before another cop or parent ran off the swarm.  Each iteration saw a decline in the ranks as some failed to identify the next link up point and others were sent home by authorities.

Reading about the Libyan opposition today reminded me of this period in my life.  Except the teenagers were the Libyan rebels driving in disorganized caravans until Qaddafi’s army lobs a few shells their way.  This perpetual “Charlie Foxtrot” supported by a NATO NFZ poses a serious problem.

The NY Times article “Rebel Leadership in Libya Shows Strain” illustrates the complex problems ahead for the West regardless of Qaddafi’s fate.  For all those touting ‘leaderless’ revolutions, take note, this is the result. I infer from the article that there is no real leadership.  Leaders have followers and it does not appear that any of these designated “leaders” command sufficient popular support to unify the Libyan opposition much less defeat Qaddafi’s army. Many of the so-called opposition leaders spend more time arguing with other opposition members than battling Qaddafi.

The most serious deficit appears to be in military leadership.  The rebel military hopes hinge entirely on the effectiveness of the NFZ at dismantling Qaddafi’s logistics (which it might very well do).  However, a little bit of military leadership will likely go a long way for the rebels.  And who might fill this gap?

  • Western Special Operations Forces- The U.S. has repeatedly said no.  I’ve seen a couple of reports that British SAS are in the fight.  Is there any other way to have the West give them some ground-based leadership?
  • Libyan defectors- Defectors would put some additional emotional sting against the Qaddafi military, but it appears most remain on the sidelines.
  • AQ and Foreign Fighter veterans- Unfortunately, AQ veterans in Libya, while small in number, will rise in prominence as the conflict drags on.  Experienced fighters are in short supply and former foreign fighters will be a valued commodity.  Ending the Qaddafi regime quickly will limit their influence in the opposition.

Libyan Foreign Fighter Records

Numerous news articles cite the Sinjar records as evidence of AQ’s presence in Libya.  I discussed the Libyan foreign fighters documented in the Sinjar records last week.   It seems, however, the media really likes the “Libya provided the most foreign fighters to Iraq” story.  I proposed the Sinjar records were only a sample of the foreign fighter flow into Iraq and not representative of the entire foreign fighter population.  Then I thought, why doesn’t everyone decide what’s in the foreign fighter records for themselves since they are a declassified data set? Thus, I dug into my coded data set and trimmed down to only the Libyan foreign fighters to Sinjar.  Here’s the .xls file for those that want it.

Libyan Sinjar Records Watts-as-of-033111

The 109 foreign fighter records I alluded to previously are coded in this file.  I hid some of the administrative columns that I thought might be distracting.  If you are interested in all the Sinjar records, a complete coded and clean version can also be accessed on this page.  Lastly, I should caution all those interested in the Sinjar records to read my “Appendix A: Data and Discussion” for further explanation of how the records were coded and what the data points represent.

I hope this coded data can be useful for those inquiring about the Libyan foreign fighters.

More Enlightenment on the Libyan Opposition

Today, a friend thankfully sent me Jon Lee Anderson’s New Yorker article, “Who are the Rebels?”.  Anderson’s article paints the most accurate picture of the Libyan rebels published thus far in the media.  I alluded to some of his points in my “Part 1” post late last week and am glad that Anderson is on the ground providing perspective.  Here is one key quote from Anderson’s article:

“Mustafa Gheriani, a businessman and rebel spokesman, acknowledged the ragtag inefficiencies of the revolutionary councils but urged me not to believe Qaddafi’s charges of extremism. “The people here are looking to the West, not to some kind of socialist or other extreme system—that’s what we had here before,” he said. “But, if they become disappointed with the West, they may become easy prey for extremists.”

In my last post, I discussed isolating Darnah should it head the way of AQ.  While I still believe this should be considered if AQ influence emerges, I do think NATO-U.S. should immediately engage with all of the Libyan opposition first before writing off certain individuals as extremists.  I’m not convinced that those few remnants of LIFG still in Eastern Libya will work to build a jihadi-militant state.  Timing remains the largest issue for the West.  The West should engage now if it wants to avert extremist emergence.  A small amount of financial, political and military resources could create a buffer between AQ and more conservative factions in Libya’s opposition.

Lastly, for another perspective on U.S. intervention in Libya and the long run ramifications for U.S. foreign policy, see SoLittlePains latest post.